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Low-Hanging Fruit to Improve Your Teaching

by Susan Martonosi on November 9th, 2014

I enjoyed the Teaching Effectiveness Colloquium today, chaired by Eric Huggins. Participants ranged from current Ph.D. students who are teaching their first course to seasoned educators with decades of experience.  Presenters were Patrick Noonan, speaking about active learning and project-based courses; Mike Racer, speaking about teaching sustainability; Alexandra Newman, speaking about teaching to a wide audience (across majors and degree programs) and time-saving tips; and myself, speaking about course and syllabus design.

I think everybody in the room came away with nuggets that they can apply to improve their courses, and if I could summarize the overarching takeaway, it would be that effective teaching is not inherently a time-consuming endeavor!  We can easily take the things we are already doing in our classes, tweak them slightly, and achieve great improvements.  Here are some examples:

1. Think-Pair-Share:  Rather than asking a question of the group, Patrick asked us to individually reflect on the question (writing down our thoughts, which requires a higher level of cognition than simply thinking them) and then engage in an active listening activity with a partner.  Partner A spoke for one minute about their response to the question while Partner B listened attentively.  Then roles were reversed.  Patrick called on two partner pairs to report to the class.  The entire exercise took approximately 3 minutes longer than just asking the question of the class would have, and it engaged everybody in the room.  Moreover, it took no additional preparation on Patrick’s part.

2. “Active” active learning: One anecdote that I shared with the group came from a class I am currently teaching.  I occasionally have students work on problems in groups at their desks.  A colleague mentioned that she does the same activity but asks the groups to stand up and work through the problems on the board.  I gave this a try last week and was amazed at how much more engaged the students were in the activity just by being asked to stand up!

3. Backwards design: My session focused on backwards course design, which means clarifying the aims (long-term, broad learning outcomes for the course) and objectives (short-term, measurable outcomes) of the course and using those aims and objectives to inform the topics, classroom activities and assignments.  This doesn’t require extra time, but simply requires an instructor to go through the same course-preparation steps in a different order.

4. Sustainability: Mike gave a compelling case that we are currently facing an environmental crisis, and operations researchers have the problem-solving skills that could lend valuable insights.  Given that we teach problem-solving anyway, why not use these environmental issues as examples in our classes?  A specific source of debate amongst workshop participants was the tension between corporate focus on short-term profitability and the high up-front costs of sustainability; this is where the ability to conduct sensitivity analysis, frame a problem from multiple vantage points and communicate alternate solutions comes into play.

5. Time-saving effective teaching: Alexandra gave several examples of time-saving strategies that actually yield improvements in student learning.  One was her policy requiring students come to office hours rather than expect help over email.  Consolidating her assistance into office hours is a clear time-saving win, but it yields interesting benefits: students are more likely to figure out the problem on their own eventually, rather than relying on quick emails to answer their questions; students get the one-on-one communication that can be more effective for clarifying deeper questions; and students can explain concepts to each other during office hours, which requires a higher level of cognition.  I’m not sure I’d adopt this policy myself, but it was an interesting perspective to contemplate.

It was wonderful to interact with other people committed to effective OR/MS teaching.

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